Land of the Rising Fun!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Oh man, these are the kinds of quirky film concepts I live for, definitely up there with films like The Major and the Minor, The Whole Town’s Talking or Sylvia Scarlett. I’ve never previously been a Shirley MacLaine fan but My Geisha may have converted me. Unlike many dual identity films, I actually found the premise here believable, in that Lucy’s husband Paul Robiax (Yves Montand) wouldn’t recognise her disguised as her alter ego geisha by the name of Yoko – At times I found myself MacLaine is pretending to be a Geisha. Ok, the illusion might not work for everyone but it did for this viewer. Also on a more superficial appraisal, omg Yoko is so cute! I was also surprised and delighted that Edward G. Robinson actually has almost as much screen time as MacLaine, making the two a great comedic pairing. I stated in my review of The Whole Towns Talking (1935) that Edward G. Robinson appeared in some very quirky comedies in his career but this film just furthers that statement, My Geisha is by far the quirkiest of them all.
However, it’s not just goofiness for the sake of goofiness, the dual identity set up actually allows for a deep and complex plot. For starters it examines the business of film by acknowledging the dilemma of casting white actors as non-white characters; you can’t get a large budget for a film unless it stars a big box office draw, most of who in the early 1960’s where white. The other surprising area of depth that comes out of the goofy plot is the examination of the husband’s ego, tired of being in the shadow of his wife’s success and desiring the more conservative nature of Japanese society, a nature which Robaix acknowledges is disappearing from Japan as the country becomes increasingly westernised. Another point of interest if the moment when Edward G. Robinson’s character receives the news that Lucy’s husband has discovered the truth about Yoko, Robinson asks to be taken to the fourth floor of the hotel. The Japanese tend to avoid the use of the number 4 due to superstitions regarding the number as unlucky.
My Geisha would unsurprisingly not be made today would be seen as politically incorrect with its use of so-called “yellowface”, not to mention Bob Cummings in the role of somewhat creepy adulterous movie star Bob Moore who doesn’t quite understand boundaries. Yet even a film of this manner was made today, you know the film world come to a halt for 20 minutes when Lucy’s secret is revealed (otherwise known as the dreaded cliché of the liar revealed) in which one character would tell the other about how they’ve been betrayed and they never want to see each other again even though they get back together at the end. Not here though, when Lucy’s husband discovers she is Yoko (which I should add is done a very clever manner) he quietly accepts that he was fooled and there’s no big pointless, drawn-out argument scene. Sorry, classic movie fanboy rant.
I wonder what the Japanese reaction to this was. I assume this is an idealised, tourist brochure version of Japan but either way this film sure looks beautiful. I believe this could likely be credited to the surprising choice of director, Jack Cardiff, normally more famous for his work as a cinematographer. The entire film is a feast for the eyes and ears with its eye-popping colour and score by Franz Waxman (even the film within a film looks incredible and is itself emotionally moving). Not to mention to the costume design by the great Edith Head, it’s clear in classic Hollywood films that costumes were no afterthought. My Geisha is another obscure, quirky gem which I adore.